In 1934, an elevated rail line was opened on the West Side of Manhattan as an efficient way to transport goods from the industrial center today enjoyed my many as West Chelsea. But as we saw emerge post-war through a series of national transportation initiatives, the automobile was king in America. A grand network of highways now existed, and the trucking industry usurped the cargo train. In 1980, the last train runs on the highline and the tracks are vacant and without any plans for subsequent use. Around the year 2000, Friends of the Highline is founded to preserve the structure and for adaptive reuse as a public space. A few years later, this challenge and advocacy work matures into a open planning process, ideas competition with the eventual selection of a design team. Yet again a few years later the design team of of James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf are selected to convert vision into reality just as the property is transferred to the city by CSX Transportation, Inc. With groundbreaking celebrated in April 2006, three distinct sections become opened to the public over a seven year period: the 2009 section of Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street; The 2011 section extending West 20th Street 10 more blocks to West 30th Street; and the third and northern most section called the High Line at the Rail Yards. While owned by the City, the Friends group raises 98% of the park budget under the mission of seeking to engage the vibrant and diverse community on and around the High Line.
In less than two decades the Highline is now one of the largest attractions in NYC while at the same time completely transforming a once working middle class light industrial neighborhood. An elevated spine of green public space slicing through west Manhattan now commands so much social, environmental, and financial capital that high end stores, restaurants, and luxury condos are ubiquitous, legacy tenants are forced to leave due to increasing rents, and both locals and tourists alike flock to the area as a destination. This grand gesture of placemaking on a larger scale should be celebrated for many reasons, yet it is also important to acknowledge downfalls, such as the erosion of neighborhood character and ill effects on gentrification and every day lives of the locals who have invested in the areas for decades. Thankfully these are all known problems which are being addressed and create a great opportunity for real dialog and tangible problem solving.
Its been great to see this project come into fruition over time as a huge collective and collaborative effort between many stakeholders and groups. I remember reading about the early beginnings of the project in Landscape Architecture Magazine years ago, and was finally able to visit for the first time in May 2013. I’ve since been back many times to see the latest section additions and changes in the seasons. Here are keenest observations, insights, and themes from these experiences:
- Importance of green spaces. The most exciting thing about this project for me is how it puts on center stage and truly demonstrates how important and vital green spaces are to our quality of life, and their immediate impact on making their surroundings a livable, enjoyable space. We’ve all seen this in action at very successful examples such as Central Park and Bryant Park, but i’m sure there was initially some uncertainty as to just how impactful an elevated park would be and if New Yorkers were culturally ready to climb a few flights of stairs to reach an oasis. Obviously this theory proved to be wrong, adding that verticality, at least up to 100 feet, is not a barrier for participation. I’ll also add that the park makes great efforts for ADA accessibility. While this is a requirement as a public space, its often challenges to create the same arrival and guest experience for those using ramps and elevators.
- Educational tool. The Highline is an instant educational botanic garden that can be used in the same manner as the New York Botanic Garden to educate the public on the importance of flora and fauna in the landscape. Native Pollinators. Native Plants. Insect and Bird Habitats. The importance of street streets. Where does our fruit and vegetable come from? What are common building materials that can be grown? I would argue that strategically the Highline has the greatest opportunity to reach non traditional, diverse audiences over most public gardens simply because the Highline is a destination as itself and many visitors simply visit because its popular. What a great place to accidentally learn about and become passionate about horticulture or the importance of urban design. These life changing events commonly happen in inspirational spaces such as the Highline. I myself decided to go to library school after visiting the research library at Kew Gardens and previously decided to go to landscape architecture school after learning the history of how my coastal neighborhood transformed the waterfront from WWII forts and factories to parks and campuses.
- I’m running out of time, but wanted to mention how great the design team was in making this a special place. I’ve been lucky to meet and work with designers from James Corner Field Operations, and they truly excel at placemaking. Piet Oudolf has assembled some wonderful plant material on site in a way that anyone can appreciate. My favorite aspect of this is the movement in the plant materials, especially the grasses. This is one of Oudolf’s talents and what helps the space come to life.
- Rails to trails. I also want to add that I remember being a huge proponent of the rails to trails movement in any shape or form in the 90’s and 2000’s as it became popular as an open space and recreational win, but suddenly became more reserved when I learned of the potential opportunities in many areas for the old freight rails to return in the future as commuter rails in many suburban and metro areas. This does not really apply to the highline, or other abandoned elevated rails but is important to mention.
- I also hope that the design of the Highline walkway can be viewed as a template for how streetscapes can be transformed in the future, with large and wide planting medians and many placemaking opportunities. Its already happening in many progressive communities, and i’d like to think that the Highline could culturally prepare people to start thinking about planting grasses and native plants in their front yards, between the sidewalk and curb, or in cul de sac.
Yes, the Highline is a momentous American narrative of preservation, gentrification, popular culture, urban living, environmentalism, and community. I’d call it a success!
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